July 19, 2021


Can Silicon Valley Find God? (Linda Kinstler, Jul. 16th, 2021, NY Times)

The rise of pseudo-sacred industry practices stems in large part from a greater sense of awareness, among tech workers, of the harms and dangers of artificial intelligence, and the growing public appetite to hold Silicon Valley to account for its creations. Over the past several years, scholarly research has exposed the racist and discriminatory assumptions baked into machine-learning algorithms. The 2016 presidential election -- and the political cycles that have followed -- showed how social media algorithms can be easily exploited. Advances in artificial intelligence are transforming labor, politics, land, language and space. Rising demand for computing power means more lithium mining, more data centers and more carbon emissions; sharper image classification algorithms mean stronger surveillance capabilities -- which can lead to intrusions of privacy and false arrests based on faulty face recognition -- and a wider variety of military applications.

A.I. is already embedded in our everyday lives: It influences which streets we walk down, which clothes we buy, which articles we read, who we date and where and how we choose to live. It is ubiquitous, yet it remains obscured, invoked all too often as an otherworldly, almost godlike invention, rather than the product of an iterative series of mathematical equations.

"At the end of the day, A.I. is just a lot of math. It's just a lot, a lot of math," one tech worker told me. It is intelligence by brute force, and yet it is spoken of as if it were semidivine. "A.I. systems are seen as enchanted, beyond the known world, yet deterministic in that they discover patterns that can be applied with predictive certainty to everyday life," Kate Crawford, a senior principal researcher at Microsoft Research, wrote in her recent book "Atlas of AI."

These systems sort the world and all its wonders into an endless series of codable categories. In this sense, machine learning and religion might be said to operate according to similarly dogmatic logics: "One of the fundamental functions of A.I. is to create groups and to create categories, and then to do things with those categories," Mr. Boettcher told me. Traditionally, religions have worked the same way. "You're either in the group or you're out of the group," he said. You are either saved or damned, #BlessedByTheAlgorithm or #Cursed by it.

Paul Taylor, a former Oracle product manager who is now a pastor at the Peninsula Bible Church in Palo Alto, Calif. (he took the Silicon Valley-to-seminary route), told me about an epiphany he had one night, after watching a movie with his family, when he commanded his Amazon Echo device to turn the lights back on.

"I realized at one point that what I was doing was calling forth light and darkness with the power of my voice, which is God's first spoken command -- 'let there be light' and there was light -- and now I'm able to do that," he said. "Is that a good thing? Is that a bad thing? Is it completely neutral? I don't know. It's certainly convenient and I certainly appreciate it, but is it affecting my soul at all, the fact that I'm able to do this thing that previously only God could do?"

While turning on the light may be among the more benign powers that artificial intelligence algorithms possess, the questions become far weightier when similar machines are used to determine whom to give a loan, or who to surveil.

Mr. Taylor's congregation includes venture capitalists, tech workers and scientists. A few years ago, after he organized a lecture about the theological implications of technology -- on how everything from the iPhone to the supercomputer is altering the practice of faith -- he began noticing that church members would seek him out with questions on the subject. This inspired him to start a podcast, "AllThingsNew.Tech."

"I've been able to talk to a lot of Christian C.E.O.s and Christian founders and just get their perspective on how faith integrates with their technology," Mr. Taylor said. Their conversations didn't dwell on concerns over evangelism or piety, but on questions like, "Does my actual faith affect the technical decisions I'm making?" "Are you afraid that technology might be degrading our humanity?" "Through the conversations I've had," Mr. Taylor said, "in some senses all roads lead to the question of: What does it mean to be human?"

I began to encounter whole networks of tech workers who spend their days thinking about these questions. Joanna Ng, an IBM master inventor with about 44 patents to her name, told me that she left the company in 2018 to start her own firm because she felt "darkness" closing in on her from all sides of the tech industry. "Christ will rise before we see artificial super-intelligence," she said, describing industry efforts to develop the technology, and the vast sums spent pursuing it.

I also met Sherol Chen, a software engineer for A.I. research at Google who organizes meetings where her colleagues can discuss and practice their faith. "Not talking about politics and religion has created some circumstances that we find ourselves in today," she told me. "Because it's kind of a new thing, there's a new openness toward it." She helped inspire others in the industry to hold prayer meetings, including, for the past two years, 24-hour virtual "Pray for Tech" sessions, which are livestreamed from around the world.

During last year's event, I watched as the attendees joined together in prayer, asking for repentance and praying for their executives, co-workers and products. Ms. Chen invoked Google's mission statement, without saying the company's name. "We're seeing these answers and these solutions from heaven come through us into our code, into our strategies, into our planning, into our design," she said. "May we pray for every meeting we have, may we take captive every keystroke we make, everything that we type."

The technological and religious worlds have long been intertwined. For over a half-century, people have been searching for a glint of spirit beneath the screen. Some of the earliest A.I. engineers were devout Christians, while other A.I. researchers grew up believing they were descendants of Rabbi Loew, the 16th-century Jewish leader who is said to have created a golem, a creature fashioned from clay and brought to life by the breath of God. Some Indian A.I. engineers have likened the technology to Kalki, the final incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu, whose appearance will signal the end of a dark age and the dawn of a golden era.

One of the most influential science fiction stories, "The Last Question" by Isaac Asimov, dramatizes the uncanny relationship between the digital and the divine. These days, the story is usually told in distilled and updated form, as a kind of joke: A group of scientists create an A.I. system and ask it, "Is there a god?" The A.I. spits out an answer: "Insufficient computing power to determine an answer." They add more computing power and ask again, "Is there a god?" They get the same answer. Then they redouble their efforts and spend years and years improving the A.I.'s capacity. Then they ask again, "Is there a god?" The A.I. responds, "There is now."

In 1977, when Apple unveiled its logo, some took it as a reference to the Garden of Eden. "Within this logo, sin and knowledge, the forbidden fruits of the garden of Eden, are interfaced with memory and information in a network of power," the queer theorist Jack Halberstam wrote. "The bite now represents the byte of information within a processing memory." (The rumored true story is less interesting: The apple is supposed to be a reference to the one that helped Isaac Newton establish the law of gravity; the bite was added to distinguish it from a cherry.)

Today, a sprawling orchard adorns the center of the Apple headquarters in Cupertino, Calif.; I've been told employees are encouraged not to pick its fruit.

Posted by at July 19, 2021 12:00 AM